Never "Finished"--Only Ready
How to tell when your manuscript is done
My novel, All You Have to Do, is going out on submission soon, and this strange feeling of being “finished” with this manuscript and ready for its next stage has me reflecting on that question I have asked a number of writers over the past four years as I worked on my novel in progress: how do you know when you’re done?
Whether in revision workshops, on panels, or in books on craft and the creative life, the answers have varied widely, but many are on the side of “when my editor pries it out of my cold, dead hands,” or, “I’m still correcting my words as I read them out of the printed book.” I wasn’t alone in feeling like I would never be satisfied with my work. But now I can see more clearly how you learn to let go of your work. You will never be finished, but you will decide it is good enough to share.
First, it will be good enough to share with a trusted reader. For me, that was my mom, to whom I read my entire first draft, which was quite rough and confusing. It only had some combination of memory, emotion, and intention, and my mom was the only person who I trusted to recognize those things. She enjoyed hearing it, and I enjoyed reading it to her. But it was nowhere near ready to share beyond that trusted room.
Next, another draft or two in, it will be good enough to share with other writers. When you are closer to knowing what you are trying to create, and you need some opinions on how well you are crafting it, you will bring your work to your critique group or a writing partner and see what they can tell you. You will consider how their feedback resonates with you, and you will take some and leave some. You will spend as much time as you need reworking what’s on the page.
Once you suspect that you are doing what you set out to do and you want to see if it’s having the desired effect, you may share with more ideal readers. Among my family and friends and within my community, a handful of people generously read my manuscript and gave me the feedback I needed to know that it is received as intended, a gift just for them.
You may share another draft, and another, until you’ve exhausted your resources–advice, readers, time, energy and motivation–and don’t see how to make your manuscript better. Or perhaps you do see a few minor details that could be improved, but you know from the process you’ve been through that it would require another painstaking series of months, perhaps years, to reach that level of perfection. You have gained enough momentum from your supportive readers to see that you cannot afford to hold onto your manuscript for those months and years, because you want to share it with a wider audience. That is when you are ready to submit.
You query agents, or you send it to your agent. You try to prepare for the transition from private writer to public writer. You find comfort in the fact that, if/when your manuscript is sold, an editor will bring you through another round of improvements. You also find solace in the fact that you don’t have to work on the manuscript right now, because you’ve put your best foot forward, and now the ball is in someone else’s court.
So it’s true, I’ve found, that you’re never really “finished.” At different times, you find yourself ready to share with different audiences, and each time you share, it is part of the process.
I dread the thought of having a printed book with my name on it that I still want to change. But that’s where the advice of other writers comes in again. Maya Angelou said, “The work, once completed, does not need me. The work I’m working on needs my total concentration. The one that’s finished doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to itself.”
So, while my novel is on submission, I am working on other things, and I hope that when each book is published, I will have the strength to allow it to belong to itself, and to its readers.
© 2022 by Autumn Allen